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  • International Workplace
  • 14 August 2018
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Employers failing to tackle sexual harassment at work

The Government, regulators and employers are failing in their responsibilities to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, says the Women and Equalities Committee in a report resulting from a wide-ranging six-month inquiry.

The Committee finds that sexual harassment at work is widespread and commonplace but there has been a failure to tackle unlawful behaviours, despite the government's obligations under international law.

40% of women and 18% of men have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. 

Employers and regulators have ignored their responsibilities for too long, says the Committee, and often legal protections are not available to workers in practice.

The report calls on government to focus on five priorities to put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda for employers:

  1. Introduce a new duty on employers to prevent harassment, supported by a statutory code of practice outlining the steps they can take to do this; and ensuring that interns, volunteers and those harassed by third parties have access to the same legal protections and remedies as their workplace colleagues.
  2. Require regulators to take a more active role, starting by setting out the actions they will take to help tackle this problem, including the enforcement action they will take; and making it clear to those they regulate that sexual harassment is a breach of professional standards and a reportable offence with sanctions.
  3. Make enforcement processes work better for employees by setting out in the statutory code of practice what employers should do to tackle sexual harassment; and reducing barriers to taking forward tribunal cases, including by extending the time limit for submitting a claim, introducing punitive damages for employers and reducing cost risks for employees.
  4. Clean up the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), including by requiring the use of standard, plain English confidentiality clauses, which set out the meaning, limit and effect of the clause, and making it an offence to misuse such clauses; and extending whistleblowing protections so that disclosures to the police and regulators such as the EHRC are protected.
  5. Collect robust data on the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace and on the number of employment tribunal claims involving complaints of harassment of a sexual nature.

Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Maria Miller MP, said:

“It is utterly shameful that in 2018, unwanted sexual comments, touching, groping and assault are seen as an everyday occurrence and part of the culture in many workplaces. Government, regulators and employers have been dodging their responsibilities for far too long.

“There is currently little incentive for employers to take robust action. In contrast, there is considerable focus on other corporate governance issues like protecting people's personal data and preventing money laundering, with stringent requirements on employers and businesses to meet their responsibilities.

“It's time to put the same emphasis on tackling sexual harassment. The effects of sexual harassment can be traumatic and devastating, and this is reinforced by the personal evidence we received.

“The lack of appropriate support for victims within the workplace cannot continue. The burden falls unacceptably on the individual to hold harassers and employers to account when they will already hesitate to do so due to fear of victimisation. The current system is inadequate: the tribunal system must provide an effective remedy for employees.

“NDAs have their place in settling complaints, but they must not be used to prevent or dissuade victims from reporting incidents as is clearly the case now. We expect proper regulation of NDAs and that any unethical practices lead to strong and appropriate sanctions.”

The full report, Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, is available to view here.